Thursday, November 24, 2011

barstool historians

    The quarter is winding down and we are at an end of the regular posts that covered a different bar every week.  Now I’ll be focusing more on the analysis, but I do plan to have a few bits of new history in the next couple weeks.

    Bars are historically unique for these reasons:
    1) Their history is collective.  Each person who goes to any given bar is adding their personal story to the larger, shared story.  Bars are touchstones, each night is a snapshot of the neighborhood or community that the bar serves.  Regulars will even be able use references as in, “Were you there that night that…?” or “Remember that old bartender who used to…?”  The history of the bar is often passed down to the successive generations of patrons.
    2) Good bars stay open for a very long time.  Everybody knows serving alcohol is a recession proof business that never goes out of fashion.  Certain places are undoubtedly trendier than others, but even as bars close they always reopen, as another bar.  Bars that are able to inspire loyalty will always be able to find new patrons as the old ones phase out.
    3) People go to bars for the express purpose of socializing.  It can be everything from a source to the news of the day to where one discusses the finer points of Proust.  Also you’re much more likely to talk to people you wouldn’t have otherwise at a bar.  I’ve sat at the same table with a lawyer and drug dealer having a engaging conversation about immigration reform.  Such a cross-section of intermingling people adds to the richness of the larger history.
an example of the dumb things people do at bars
    4) Alcohol is not just a social lubricant, but it makes a person dramatic and drastic.  If patrons were just sitting around talking, not much would happen there.  Add booze into the mix and relationships are passionately spawned or hotly ended (sometimes in the same night).  Fights break out, friendships are formed, baseball is exciting, dancing happens!  I’ve seen people who dance sober on TV, but I’ve never met one of them.
    As I found out this collective history is not always easy to nail down.  In my Kingfish post (see Nov. 11th post) I realized how few people ever keep an official history of bars and, believe it or not, stories passed down from one drunk to another are not always the most accurate.  Another problem is that many of the barstool historians aren’t able to see the forest for the trees and tend to strong on gossip within their lifetime at the bar, but a little weak on historical significance.
    This does not diminish the importance of the role bars play or what they say about a community.  The Kingfish is fighting for its survival by attempting to quantify the historical significance it has played in the neighborhood.  In smaller towns, like Bolinas and Port Costa, the bar was a major focal point for the surrounding people, serving as something akin to a town square.  I witnessed people not just coming in to get a drink, but to eat lunch and chat or just find out what was going on about town.  Telling the history of the bar is telling the history of community and vise versa.
    Vesuvio and Specs, put on the map by Beat culture in North Beach, are now used to define identity.  These days the two bars share a basically interchangeable cast of regulars and there is defiantly the feeling of a proud subculture within the North Beach community based on the collective bar history.  The regulars at those bars revel in the tradition they joined by drinking alongside the ghosts of their heroes.
    Heinold’s First and Last Chance was the anomaly here.  The community of sailors, fisherman and rugged writers has long since left the marina we now call Jack London Square.  Few people live or even work in the touristy area so it is a destination bar now, a place to sit in the sun with a gimlet (my favorite sun-sitting cocktail).  But because the saloon was not able to evolve, and proprietors have been keen enough to maintain the history, it stands like a monument, preserved in amber, to a lost era.  Defining what that era is might be tricky, spanning the 1880’s to the 1960’s (when George Heinold died), but one gets the impression little changed in the bar in those 80 years (other than the floor sinking that is).
    The Last Chance is also exceptional in that it does have an official record.  Every other bar either was a challenge trying to track down written sources on its history, but George Heinold wrote down the history of his father’s saloon in the early 30’s, which was just about the time he took it over himself.  The record was then updated in the 70’s with another book by a regular named Otha Wearin.  It is likely that Johnny Heinold’s relationship with Jack London made it historically notable while the bar was still relatively young.  If the owner of Merchants Saloon (or whatever it was called in the 1890’s) three blocks away had given Jack London a dictionary, would that be the destination bar today, standing perfectly persevered, rather than walls covered in spray paint?

    So these bars tell us something about the history of the Bay Area, what is that?  If these bars were in Chicago with similar opening dates it is likely they would have been centers for industrial labor strife for immigrate populations.  If I was writing in Philadelphia I’d be visiting Revolutionary era taverns, probably many that claim Ben Franklin as a patron.  In New Orleans… man, that would be a rich area for historical bars, somebody should do that.
    My point is the story of our bars is nothing short of the history of the West.  Of California itself.  I’ve spanned the entirety of this state’s history since it joined the Union (and even some time before) and I’ve been able to see some of the great moments in the Bay Area’s past play out in the stories of five different buildings.  The history of each of these bars are tales of reinvention and of seizing possibilities.  Let’s go through chronologically:
    Smiley’s Schooner Saloon (c. 1851), constructed in the boom time of new California, on the land of a Mexican Ranchero, by a sea captain who carefully danced around the temperance leagues of the ranchers.  Through many names, owners and incarnations the place as stood on the edge of the Pacific for 150 years in a town so hippie that this guy leads parades:

    The First and Last Chance Saloon (1884), built by a man who came from back east as a dock worker to start his own bar, then a new one because he couldn’t bare to be far from the sea water.  Even the name is a reference to turn-of-the-century Oakland’s status as a world class urban port.  The home away from home to Jack London, who went from being an illiterate scavenger to one of the most famous men in the world with his stories of life in the West.  I mean, really, is there anybody more California than Jack London, other than maybe Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”?
    The Kingfish Pub (1922), a bait shop serving booze on the sly turned a neighborhood institution, that is now repeated threatened by developers looking to build condos.  There are no celebrities at the Kingfish, whatever winning team you happen to be pitching for, you’re going to have to put your name up on the shuffle board and wait like everybody else.
    Vesuvius (1948), the favorite watering hole of the Beats, who were only part of a long line of bohemian romancers of the West, leaving all points East in seeking freedom of body, mind and soul on the world’s last coast.  The 60’s liberal, free-thinking reputation of San Francisco arguably grew out of the 50’s artistic Beat movement, which drew thousands of young On The Road readers to the Bay.   And conversely, the counter part to Vesuvio, Specs Twelve Adler Museum Café (1968), became so because as every good scene gets watered down once the word gets out to all the Johnny-come-latelies (hippies), truly hip are compelled to relocate somewhere ever darker and weirder.
    Finally, my personal favorite, The Warehouse Café (c. 1967), a bar in the 1886 warehouse built by a man who fostered a town out of desolate and isolated grasslands with sheer ambition, innovation and can-do American grit.  Every iconic image of the Wild West played out in Port Costa, from the raucous lawlessness of a boomtown to the nearly abandoned ghost town.  And then only to be rescued in the modern age on the hopes of another man who could not find personal, artistic and sexual freedom anywhere else, so he decided to make a community of his own.  The Warehouse in this era has been a gay bar, a cowboy bar, a biker bar and now it’s a bar for anybody whose idea of fun could be sleeping in a 19th century whorehouse.

    I had gotten so comfortable with bars I like as a places of enjoyment, that I thought of their history as mere pieces of trivia, not tying their microscopic narratives into the larger history of the Bay Area.  If these bars were people they would have valuable oral histories.  There are few places one can go to that are able to span so many generations are still open and functioning business.     
    I began this project with a cynical opinion of how Americans publicly venerate and the willful inaccuracy of collective memory, but over the coarse of this blog I’ve been come into new thinking of what history can be.  Next week’s post will be about the possibilities and aspects of how this project applies to field of Public History.

1. taken by Ami Colbert Messina of author at the Kingfish Pub.
2. taken from Smiley's website.


  1. Hey Mike! I have to admit, I am not a drinker and have never really been to a bar, but your blog makes me really think about how great a bar experience can be! Your enthusiasm is evident all through your blog and it is infectious! I really liked your point about bars lasting a long time, even through closing and reopening as a different bar. I never though of bars as a continuous, collective history, but by reading your blog it seems to obvious!

  2. Wow, thanks a lot. I really appreciate that. This blog has been a lot of fun to do (and not because it involved drinking, if anything getting buzzed while doing work was a bit of a pain) and I'm really glad that comes through.

  3. I'm sure almost everyone is responding to your blog because to be honest, it is the most interesting. It combines two things that everyone loves (or just us history majors): alcohol and a good back-story. Reading about all of these "local legend" kind of dive bars makes me want to head out to San Francisco on a Wednesday night and go on a "Blog-pub crawl". Bars are probably one of the greatest examples of history, especially those that have been around for generations. Each person does add a little something every time they go in there. The bartender is usually friendly and will remember your name, if you leave a good enough tip. I would really like to visit the bars you have mentioned, probably with my older sister who loves these kinds of places. She snuck me into a Berkeley bar when I was 20 for her 23rd birthday, so I know she'd be down for this. Thanks for opening my eyes to a world of bars outside of those my sometimes snotty friends like to drag me to!